by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — The downtown restaurant scene has endured and evolved over the decades. The Bridge took a moment to put a spotlight on a random handful of eateries — old and new.
A longtime favorite with a loyal following is J. Morgan’s, at the Capitol Plaza Hotel on State Street. With elegant interior design and a well-trained staff, customers can expect to be pampered.
Karen Cioffi, an employee for eight years and general manager for the past two, took a moment to describe the current state of the establishment. Owned by the family of Fred Bashara, it was purchased after the flood in 1992. The restaurant was then named the Justin Morgan Lounge.
“They renovated and made it into the restaurant it is now. They redid the entire inside of the restaurant and made it up to date,” Cioffi said.
The most sought-after dish is the bone-in steak. It is grilled and served with an herb butter and house-made shoestring onion rings. And, though J. Morgan’s is primarily a steakhouse, seafood is also a popular menu item.
“We offer a lobster mac ‘n cheese that is to die for,” Cioffi said, describing a macaroni and cheese “with the meat of a full Maine lobster and then topped with garlic butter crumbs thrown in the oven and baked to perfection.”
Lighter fare such as salads, including the Crunchy Pub salad made of crispy Romaine lettuce and bleu cheese with crispy chicken tenders is also available. In addition, weekend brunches attract a loyal following. As for desserts? “Our strawberry chiffon cake was featured in Bon Appetit mag a few years back,” Cioffi said.
And don’t forget libations. Daily drink specials include Sunday mimosas, Monday margaritas, Tuesday martinis and Manhattans, Wednesday wine specials, Thursday draft beers and Friday cocktails such as a blueberry mint julep.
Another anchor restaurant, Sarducci’s, 3 Main St., is still one of Montpelier’s most attractive places to get a delicious meal in a comfortable environment. The seating plan includes tables that overlook the river. Sarducci’s Mediterranean-style Italian food includes antipasto, bruschetta, mussels, calamari, oysters, ensalata, shrimp, capellini, crab ravioli with shrimp, baked pasta, pizza and more.
Jay Bothwell, manager, spoke about the place where he has worked on and off for 15 years.
The most popular? “I would say our chicken and veal marsala are some of our best sellers,” but he noted, “we sell a lot of pizza. I would like to pride ourselves on a different style — a thin crust pizza. We have an extensive gluten free menu, which is pretty extensive for Montpelier.”
The food is of consistent good quality, but has had to increasingly compete with new restaurants opening up in Montpelier. However, Sarducci’s is still packed over the weekends, Bothwell said. “On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, we fill the place up in three times.” Sarducci’s demographic includes long-term loyal customers and their families. But, the location has been a real bonus.
“We benefit from being the gateway to a community. A lot of people see us before anyone else,” Bothwell notes. Online travel advisor web sites also point a lot of customers to Sarducci’s.
“We operate on heavy volume. We have a kitchen that can cook 150 dinners in the space of half an hour. Our cooks are so used to the volume that they have the best spirit of anyone I’ve ever worked with. They are real champions — everyone who works here, especially our dishwashers. The strength of our restaurant is that we all are a family and we treat each other as such. It is a fun place to work.”
Just down the block from Sarducci’s, Barre Street has recently heated up as a culinary destination with new establishments cropping up this summer. The place that seems to stir up the most excitement is BEAU Butchery and Bar at 207 Barre St.
As a butchery, they sell cuts of meat, such as “butcher boxes” that include assorted sausages, steaks, chops and marinated meats. You can also get individual beef, pork, poultry and seafood.
They also serve a lunch crowd at the delicatessen. Offerings include a smoked vegetable muffuletta sandwich, pastrami melt, cubano pulled pork and a BLT with heirloom tomatoes and herb aioli — each for $12 on Elmore Mountain breads with either a pickle or salad.
Kate Wise, director of mirth and merriment (her actual title), took a moment to describe other special offerings. BEAU has recently run a guest chef dinner series by inviting chefs from different restaurants or other food-oriented businesses to “come in and take over the kitchen,” Wise said. For this series, about 12 customers at a time can be accommodated for a 12-course prix fixe feast. Wise is in charge of pairing the wines or cocktails with each course. An upcoming dinner will feature Carpaccio — a very thinly sliced raw beef served with arugula and olive oil. At the helm will be Frank Ingle, Beau’s apprentice butcher.
There is very limited indoor seating and a nice outdoor dining area.
Closer to Montpelier, but also on Barre Street, is Woodbelly Pizza owned by David Puck — a fixture on the farmer’s market scene for several years. Since June, he has been serving pizza on Thursdays only out of his Barre Street kitchen. Made using hand-crafted dough, toppings will include squash puree, shishito peppers, locally cultivated mushrooms and savory sausages from Maple Wind Farm. Fresh tomato and pesto is a very popular combination as well.
And, surprisingly, “Fruit pizza is always a big one,” Puck said. For this pizza, Puck gets pears from Provender farm in Cabot. They can be used fresh or poached in a wine reduction and paired with Bayley Hazen bleu cheese from Jasper Hill or goat cheese from Lazy Lady Farm in West Glover. Pizza will be served on Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m. at 87 Barre St. across from the Bohemian Bakery, off Barre Street down by the bike path.
Bohemian Bakery, which opened earlier this summer, has, in its own right, grown a strong customer base of folks looking for coffee drinks, pastries and sandwiches for lunch.
Another established Barre Street restaurant — a favorite dating spot with low lighting and tucked away corners — is Angeleno’s Pizza, 15 Barre St. They have a nice, intimate ambience with lots of indoor seating and serve traditional American Italian food such as spaghetti with meatballs, ravioli, fettuccine, tortellini, chicken with broccoli, pizza and subs. Angelenos has been at its location since 1982. The pizza is homemade and hand tossed and the other menu items use locally grown beef, Vermont made sausages and organic and locally grown vegetables.
So whether you want to grab a quick slice of pizza or savor a multi-course dinner in the cozy corner of a local bistro, you can find it in Montpelier. There are many, many more places than listed above, so get out and explore!